Exploration is the heart and soul of Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan. Having never played an Etrian Odyssey game before, I never quite understood what this focus entailed, as many other RPGs also have exploration of dungeons or of world maps as you gaze at the exotically detailed scenery while heading off to your next destination in your quest for good.
However, in Etrian Odyssey IV, your “ultimate quest” is the exploration itself, and this focus really makes all the difference.
There isn’t much of a story behind the game, other than “explore the great lands lying at your fingertips!” Of course, the introduction does mention that all explorers have the goal of ultimately reaching Yggdrasil, which sits tantalizingly in the distance, untouched by humans, but essentially this amounts to “exploration for exploration’s sake”.
First, though, you have to have a party to explore with. Before even stepping foot outside of the city, you are tasked with building up a guild from scratch. Basically, you can customize your party as you see fit. You’re given a choice of seven classes, each with their specialty, to choose from. Each class comes with 4 different appearances (2 male, 2 female), and you can also swap between two color palettes for each with the press of a button. After choosing a new member and naming him or her, you can place him in your party. A total of 5 people can be in your party at once, so you’ll have to pick and choose.
The seven classes are: Landsknecht, who are swordsmen with high attack and some buffing spells; Nightseeker, who can attack from either the front or back row; Fortress, who are knights with very high defense and decent attack; Sniper, who specialize in using bows and status effects; Medic, who are doctors specialized in healing; Runemaster, who specialize in magic; and Dancer, who have a variety of spells (dances) that buff and heal.
You are then given several SP (skill points) to start off with, which you can use to start playing around on the character’s class skill map. The skill map is rather extensive—new skills are learned by investing one skill point, but you can also use more points to enhance the skill, either by decreasing usage cost or increasing its effect.
Upgrading skills to a certain point may unlock new skills further down the map. However, you can only access half of the skill map until level 20, after which you unlock the Veteran map. This doesn’t limit you in any way, though. Since you only get one skill point per level and there are far more than 20 places to spend SP on in the Novice map, you’ll find yourself being very careful about how you spend the precious points. For example, I could spend one point to upgrade my swordsman’s attack, or I could use it to increase the attack of a particular skill as well as reduce its TP (technical point) requirement, which is especially useful because this class doesn’t have high TP.
(Interestingly enough, after a certain point, your spell’s power may greatly increase, but the TP value will actually increase rather than decrease, so recklessly upgrading one spell too soon isn’t a good idea either.)
After that, there’s equipment to take care of, which is surprisingly flexible. Of course, every member needs a weapon, but after that, the 3 slots can be filled with any combination of shields, tunics or armors, shoes, or accessories. The equipments mostly differ only on stat value, but some rare ones also have extra effects equipped, such as being able to poison the enemy.
However, you’ll find that even with enough money, you can’t purchase much of the equipment listed at the Atelier. This is because you must first find the item, either in a treasure box or as an item drop, and sell it to the shop first for them to use the material. This plus the rather expensive cost requirement makes you strategize a bit on what you buy for who, as you will rarely be able to buy the best for everyone. This is especially so when money is obtained from selling item drops rather than after each battle like in most RPGs.
As for dungeons, well, overpowering is perhaps the last thing you’ll be doing. What I liked most about Etrian Odyssey IV is that recklessness is frowned upon. Never do you go into a new dungeon and say, “It’s safe here.” Extra-powerful encounters are always something to keep an eye out for, since these monsters, can decimate your team in a heartbeat. Every dungeon is an elaborate maze, where every few steps, you’ll encounter a monster (it’s not precisely a random encounter because you can tell when a fight is approaching, but it’s unavoidable with a few exceptions such as using an item to leave the dungeon). In addition, the dungeons run on semi-real time, so every turn in battle results in time flow.
For example, in the Small Orchard dungeon, you were told that it would be a relaxing place, where you can train a bit before heading off to the larger labyrinth, the Lush Woodlands, right next to it. However, if you get confident and fight off some of the “strong” monsters there (little fawns, really), the game warns you about a roar echoing through the forest. On the map on the bottom screen, which shows the locations of particularly strong monsters, you’ll find a new icon that approaches you faster than you can move. Having an item to warp you out of the dungeon would be the best solution, but if that’s not possible, the only thing you can do is hope no monsters attack you and take up any precious turns while you make your way towards the exit with this new monster tailing you.
Normal enemies are also surprisingly interactive. In one dungeon, there is an armadillo monster that is rather harmless on its own. However, when there’s a baboon enemy in the party as well, the baboon can toss the armadillo and heavily damage (or kill!) an entire line in your party. On another floor, you encounter chameleon enemies that become invisible every other turn. While the normal encounters aren’t hard, when you first enter a dungeon and meet them for the first time, the danger is there.
In this way, the dungeons are very interactive. Not only are there mining spots to find rare items, but you can sometimes find secret passageways marked by pink flowers that can take you between labyrinth “walls.” Quests often take place in dungeons as well, and sometimes you’ll find random bags in a dungeon and are given the option to investigate. Often, you’re asked to interact with the stronger monsters. In one map, bears will follow you and destroy any paths barred by large logs, creating shortcuts and opening new roads. On the main area map (what you see when you leave the city), you’ll see kangaroo-like creatures far too powerful for you that can be lured away from you if you give them food.
To keep track of all of this, Etrian Odyssey IV presents you with perhaps what the series is most famous for—its map drawing function. In the dungeon, on the bottom screen, you always have a blank grid open—in the dungeon, in battles, between load screens, etc. To the right, you have a palette of various tools and stickers which you can use to color in the grid as you move. You can use a thick line to show a “wall,” or you can use blue paint to show “water.” Stickers you can use include stairs, doorways, arrows, and even a small airship to show your entrance. In addition, after you have finished your map, you can use a special set of arrow stickers to have your character move automatically through the dungeon.
I loved keeping track of the map. It gave me the feeling that I really was mapping out (hah) new territory. It isn’t an unnecessary feature that was thrown in without thought, because Etrian Odyssey IV’s mazes really are very extensive, and without such a tool, wandering the dungeons would probably have to be based off unreliable memory (or pen and paper).
Etrian Odyssey IV puts a lot of control in the hands of the player, which is perhaps why it feels so satisfying when you accomplish something. When I finally defeated my first large monster, I was proud of my team. It felt like we had come a long way. Granted, we were only level 11, but it felt like something I had raised from nothing. The same holds true when I manage to map a whole dungeon—at that point, the anxiety and trepidation turn into a sort of wonder and awe that I know the map, the monster movements, the secret passageways, the treasure chest locations, and the twists and turns like the back of my hand despite all its complexities and how many times I was on the verge of death when I first clicked on “Yes” to explore this dungeon.
Food for thought:
1. There’s also party placement and special skills to worry about when it comes to customizing your party. You can only equip two Burst Skills, which are activated by filling up a gauge with every attack or defense your party makes. The Burst Skills are not just overly powerful attacks, though. One is to retreat from the dungeon, and another is to halve all damage received that turn. Deciding which skill to equip when is just another way to make your party suit our preferences.
2. It’s interesting how, just in the first area map, you can tell that there is a greater land out there. Your map clearly shows that you can access the higher ridges by showing items tantalizingly out of reach and large enemies flying overhead, but you can’t reach them yet.
3. By completing quests, you can obtain hammers, which you can bring to the Atelier to open up options on modifying your equipment. Different hammers have different effects, so you can add an extra Vitality boost or extra Strength or the poison status effect. This can be done multiple times on one equipment, but I’m not sure it can be undone.